Huitlacoche – Aquí es Texcoco and Olympic Mercado

I wonder how many gringos had huitlacoche for both lunch and dinner yesterday? Well, I did.

Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on the corn plant, and the unappetizing english translation is corn smut. It has a rich mushroomy, corny sort of flavor that gives a delicious earthy undertone to other foods, particularly tortillas and cheese, in my experience.

I’ve heard it called Mexican caviar, and although I had tried it a few times before, I really started to focus on it after reading the wonderful novel Policía de Ciudad Juárez by Miguel Ángel Chávez Díaz de León. His main character is fascinated amost to point of obsession with huitlacoche, and orders it wherever he can find it.

I had two entirely different experiences with huitlacoche yesterday.

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The first was at a food stand in the Olympic Mercado, where Los Angeles vendors set up shop on Saturdays. I had a huarache de huitlacoche. It is called a huarache because the masa is formed in the shape of a sandal, like a super-thick tortilla. (No, I haven’t yet figured out the difference between a huarache and a chancla, which translates a flip-flop sandal) The corn aspects of the huitlacoche flavor blended beautifully with the toasted corn flavor of the huarache, and they were balanced nicely by the melted cheese.

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In the evening, I drove out to Bell Gardens, near Commerce, to Aquí es Texcoco for their spectacular roast lamb. I’ll tell you about that in another post, but right now, you need to know about the “quesataco” de huitlacoche.

In one of the most unusual presentations I’ve ever seen, they brought out sort of a quesadilla that didn’t have a tortilla wrapper, but rather crunchy, toasted cheese instead. Filled with melted white cheese and huitlacoche, it was one of the most delicious things I’ve put in my mouth this year. Interestingly, I found that taking a bite of tortilla with it brought out the flavor of the cheese and the huitlacoche even more.

Here’s the website for Aquí es Texcoco: http://www.aquiestexcoco.com/

And the Olympic Mercado is where it always is – on Olympic Boulevard east of the fashion district.

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Tlacoyos – La Barbacha, East Los Angeles

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We went to La Barbacha for their stunning Hidalgo-style steamed lamb, but for a change, I looked at the rest of the menu, and spotted something I’d never heard of… Tlacoyos. It seems they’re a Mexico City specialty, in which corn masa is stuffed (in this case) with cheese, beans or mashed potato, shaped into a torpedo, and smothered in a rich nopal sauce with crema drizzled on top.

To my taste, they seem to fit into the general category of huaraches, chanclas and sopes – tasty, rich comfort food. We didn’t finish them because we knew our plates of lamb were going to be huge.

Here’s the address and phone number: La Barbacha. 2510 East Cesar Chavez Avenue. East Los Angeles. 323-375-3334

Here’s a piece that NPR did on tlacoyos:

For the last in a summer series of grilled food from around the world, we head to Mexico, where a small doughy treat is found everywhere from street corner grills to high-end restaurants. It’s called a tlacoyo (pronounced tla-COY-yo) and although it may sound novel, it’s an ancient food that’s older than Hernan Cortes.

To taste the best tlacoyos, I was told I had to go to Xochimilco, the sprawling suburb in southern Mexico City. Juana Pina Gonzales has been selling them in the region for 25 years. She only uses blue corn masa — the dough used to make a tortilla — and stuffs the dough with all kinds of fillings, including smashed pinto or fava beans, a potato puree, mushrooms or a light cheese similar to ricotta.

Once filled, she shapes them into a small oval with pointed ends so they look like little footballs, grills them on a hot comal — a smooth round griddle — then wraps them in cloth towels before she puts them in big wicker baskets and heads to the market.

She says she usually sells all 40-50 dozen she’s made in about four hours. While Pina’s are still warm out of the basket, I really wanted one hot off the grill. So I headed to the market’s open food court, where a roving guitarist serenaded customers sitting on rickety benches around a dozen small food stalls. Each is equipped with a large hot grill teaming with all types of Mexican antojitos, or snack food; quesadillas, tacos and of course, hot steamy tlacoyos.

Isabel Salazar Cabrera claims her tlacoyos are the best and original, because her mom was the first to ever sell tlacoyos in Xochimilo. She says they’re the best because of the way she cooks the bean filling, but can’t share the recipe since it’s a family secret.

Once cooked, Salazar slides a hot fried tlacoyo on a plastic plate, and generously tops it with a big spoonful of grilled nopales (catcus slices), chopped onions, cilantro, crumbled fresh cheese and spicy green salsa.

She says tlacoyos have been the favorite food for generations. Her mom told her stories about making the tlacoyos for the farmers who worked the fields or Chinampas of Xochimilco, the floating gardens in the freshwater canals that made this southern stretch of the Mexico City valley so famous.

But Edmundo Escamilla Solis, a historian at the Culinary School of Mexico, says tlacoyos date back even further. He’s seen the small corn masa treats mentioned in the writings of the conquistadors of Mexico in the 16th century.

He says Hernan Cortes and other Spanish chroniclers wrote about Mexico’s indigenous outdoor markets and the stuffed corn masa breads sold in small food shacks. He says back in those days, tlacoyos were not only healthy — pre-Hispanic street vendors never used oil to grill them like now — they were also ideal to eat in a hurry or to take on long trips. He jokes that tlacoyos are the first fast food of the Americas.

While pre-conquest Mexicans may have eaten their tlacoyos in a hurry, chef Martha Ortiz prepares a more leisurely tlacoyo experience at her high-end restaurant in Mexico City’s swanky Polanco district.

“We are going to make it beautiful with a small Mexican fish, sardina, and a beautiful Mexican salad,” she says.

Topped with rich cheese and cilantro, Ortiz says she likes to dress up and surprise her clientele to the food of the streets.

“I love Mexican street food, I love Mexican food,” she says. “For me, it’s a passion; it’s a way of living.”